The 125th anniversary of the Scottish Brass Band Association was marked by a fine weekend of competitive action at Perth Concert Hall — one that was headed by Championship Section victory celebrations enjoyed for a record 35th time by the cooperation band.
The defending champion's compelling account of Philip Sparke's 'A Tale As Yet Untold' off the number 1 draw set a benchmark that was never seriously challenged for possession of the Hannaford Jubilee Trophy.
Russell Gray's lucid interpretation elicited playing of the highest quality from his prize-winning team, as they took home awards for 'best' cornet, horn, baritone, euphonium, bass, tuba and percussion sections'. The two point margin of victory could have been wider. It was decisive and fully deserved.
In their wake came well-beaten rivals — although in the case of Bon Accord Silver their qualification to represent the nation at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time since 1983 was arguably just as sweet.
There was though just a hint of a bitter aftertaste for Kirkintilloch Kelvin Brass, who for a moment must have thought they were heading to Kensington for the first time in their short history after being placed third.
It wasn't to be though, although it was still a result to be immensely proud of.
Pride dented for Whitburn although despite already being there courtesy of pre-qualification rather than their disappointing fourth place finish — their worst result since 2003.
Adjudicators Sandy Smith and David Barringer told 4BR that they had experienced a great deal of musical frustration in the box as bands experienced inherent "basic fundamental problems" in mastering a work that Sandy described as "a tough ask"- and one where "nobody came away unscathed."
His pre-results remarks were clear, honest and accurate — both a reflection on the difficulty of a work originally written for one of the world's great bands as well as the way in which it highlighted the disparities between those of true championship quality and those who were not.
He spoke of "clarity" and "internal balance" in each of the movements, but the key was the control of the second movement — its apex, bar 45 (molto lento section) that nobody managed to play together. "It was a real struggle. Nobody could do it". Overall he said the standard was "a bit of a mixture... a bit of a disappointment". He wasn't wrong.
Tough, tough afternoon
Dave Barringer also described it "a tough, tough afternoon"where nobody "nailed it". "One band did better — one or two steps ahead" he said, then a group of "three or four bands that were much of a muchness", where they could play the piece but always with "gaping holes" who "were tough to separate."He wasn't wrong either.
The remarks were received with tempered appreciation — an indication that they were an accurate microcosm reflection on a much wider structural problem. Even the staunchest supporters of Scottish banding would agree that the nation does not have 10 true top flight bands. The judge's comments simply endorsed a realist's opinion.
On this form, the cooperation band is certainly one that can comfortably compete against the very best as Russell Gray drew an engrossing musical portrait from the transparent score.
Each musical element was framed in a cohesive manner; the soloists playing with artistry, the ensemble tonality rich and balanced. And whilst the minor errors were noticeable they never tarnished a high class account that on the day stood clear of rivals.
Meanwhile, Adam Cooke's cultured reading also inspired some fine, confident playing from Bon Accord (aided by the award winning euphonium and percussion) as the band from Aberdeen deservedly ended a 37 wait to return to the Royal Albert Hall.
The Stavanger based Irishman had flown in from Norway to spearhead their challenge, with his finely judged interpretation delivered with compact, passionate enthusiasm.
For third placed Kirkintilloch Kelvin the sheer delight of 'qualification' celebration was unfortunately silenced moments later by Bon Accord. It should not however take anything away from a wonderful result on a performance hallmarked by an adherence to the precise musical intentions of conductor Thomas Wyss.
Not so Whitburn, under another Nordic English import in Joseph Cook.
They never sounded at ease as they looked to regain the title from their great rivals. A plethora of uncharacteristic errors and poor ensemble cohesion cost them dearly — only their star sop player Scott Forrest emerging from the debris unscathed. They could have had few complaints at the outcome.
The rest fell somewhat predictably into place, led by a hard working account from Unison Kinneil under Raymond Tennant (one of just three non-import conductors on the day) and increasingly inconsistent renditions from Kirkintilloch and the remaining contenders.
Celebrations of different sorts then for the top three finishers — as the cooperation band retained the Scottish title for the first time since 2010, with Russell Gray claiming the Walter Hargreaves Trophy as the winning conductor in the process.
They were as worthy a champion as any in the 125 year history of the event.
There was an equally clear cut winner of the First Section as Kingdom Brass won its first Scottish Championship title since its amalgamation from past winners Cowdenbeath and Kelty & Blairadam Bands in 1999.
Like the cooperation band they were also drawn number 1, as conducted by Ian Porthouse, their performance of Tom Davoren's 'Legacy' (commissioned by Tredegar) gained a clear two-point margin of victory from adjudicators Anne Crookston and Jappie Dijkstra to see the ambitious Fife ensemble head back to the National Finals for the first time since the year 2000.
They will be joined there by Bathgate, as MD Craig Anderson led them to their first Cheltenham berth since 2017. Two points further back was Johnstone under Mark Good, with the remaining top-six places going to Newmilns & Galston (with their 'Best Horn' Claire Kimm), Dalkeith & Monktonhall and Granite City Brass.
The judges were certainly impressed by the overall standard of playing on show.
Prior to the contest Anne Crookston said that she was hoping to hear a "shining performance"- and she certainly got that with Kingdom, although she also felt that all had coped with the score
"very well"and that they hadn't heard "a bad sound all evening" in what was a "hotly contested section" separated by "little tiny things".
Tempo choices and rhythmic detail played their part as three performances stood out in the box.
Jappie Dijkstra agreed, and although he confessed that he didn't really know who Aneurin Bevan was, he wryly suggested that he felt his NHS creation was needed more than ever, despite the quality of the second movement 'Hope' that was heard form the best bands.
On this evidence the two representatives heading south to Cheltenham will fancy their chances against rivals, with Kingdom's collective confidence and individual excellence (their outstanding cornet player David Prentice won the 'Best Instrumentalist' award) built on a solid foundation of warm, balanced tonality and technical accomplishment.
Add to that Ian Porthouse's experience (with subtle measurement of dynamics a feature), which allowed the music to flow between each movement surrounding with a central core of tender beauty, and they may also fancy their chances at the Senior Cup in Blackpool in May.
Bathgate, with their collective security and excellent musical leadership should also prosper throughout the rest of the year, whilst Johnstone may count themselves a touch unfortunate that they didn't quite get the qualification nod on this occasion.
Anne and Jappie were also in the box on Saturday morning for the colourful challenge of Kit Turnbull's 'The Golden Sabre'.
Both has earlier spoken of the need to "tell the story" from the score — the "Russianess of it" as Anne said. They certainly got that by the Borodino bagful as bands created the tension, anxiety and battle atmosphere of Napoleon's army marching towards a distant battlefield.
When the dust finally settled on Saturday afternoon, it was Annan Town led with wily experience by Andrew Warriner that raised its banner in triumph for the first time in their proud 119 year history and to return to Cheltenham for the second time in three years.
They will be joined for the first time since 2013 by St. Ronan's, who provided an impressive 'call to arms' off the number 1 under conductor Gordon Jenkins.
Just missing out was Lochgelly as the top three bands in the opinion of judges "brought the music to life" in what they said was a "really excellent standard — top to bottom".
Annan certainly gave them the "brilliant narrative" they were looking for with their ability to incorporate the "tricky problems" that Kit Turnbull set with well-chosen tempo choices and style considerations.
They were also one of the few that they said successfully evoked the feeling of sadness in the 'Dolente' — with solo trombone Mike Swale taking the 'Best Instrumentalist' award with his lamentoso playing (it must have been a close run thing though with some excellent percussion playing on show).
As Jappie Dijkstra later said; "We saw Napoleon 10 times this morning going to Moscow. We were also looking at the musical lines in twelve different movements with the different characters, the very controlled playing and quality of playing.
We heard some very fine bands. For the future with this with bands like you, the Scottish movement is also safe."
That wasn't an over exaggeration, as all the contenders produced playing that combined enthusiasm and passionate fervour with accomplished technique and musicality.
St Ronan's benchmark performance was one packed with character and purpose, as was Lochgelly under Paul McKelvie OBE — which may well have stood for the Order of Borodino Excellence.
Behind them, the top-six finishers of Irvine & Dreghorn, Jedforest Instrumental and Clackmannan & District all produced enjoyable, encouraging performances, as did the hard working quartet of St David's Brass, Broxburn & Livingston, Selkirk Silver and Perthshire Brass.
Andrew Baker's vividly descriptive 'Endurance' has perhaps been the most musically satisfying of all the set-works chosen for this year's regional contests.
That was certainly the opinion of Sandy Smith and Dave Barringer before the contest took place — although the latter also added the telling epithet that "it was very hard".
At its conclusion that viewpoint hadn't changed, with both clearly feeling that it was also a technical test of character, fortitude and determination every bit as demanding as that faced by Ernest Shackleton over 100 years ago amid the brittle ice and freezing seas of Antarctica.
"On the whole everybody did well at that today and some bands did really well at it," Sandy said, before adding that the piece tested the "absolute fundamentals"- echoing his pre-contest remark that it rewarded a conductor who got that right. And that for them came with the eventual winner, Croy Silver, conducted by Kenneth Blackwood.
He certainly ticked all the boxes in terms of balance, intonation, precision and tuning to make a good contest performance.
"There wasn't anything in that test-piece that was out of the realms of possibility for a band at this level," Sandy added. "In the top two bands there was some excellent solo playing and they did capture the mood of the music."
Croy did that very well indeed with an account, packed with atmosphere from the mysterious opening to the majestic close. It was a musical narrative of character and purpose, with their solid ensemble playing backed by super solo leads — and in particular 'Best Instrumentalist' award winner, Sarah Devlin on flugel horn who led the opening in nerveless fashion.
It eventually gave them a clear margin of victory as they claimed the title for the third time in their history to head to Cheltenham for the first time since 2015.
They will be joined there by Langholm Town, who secured their first appearance since 2010 thanks to a determined rendition under Chris Shanks.
With the top two clearly ahead of the rest of the field, the final podium spot went to Renfrew Burgh led by Mark James with the remaining top-six slots taken by Dysart Colliery, Whitburn Heartlands and Shotts St Patrick's.
Over the last few year there has been a significant strengthening of the grass roots foundation of Scottish banding, with the Fourth Section not only increasing in number but also quality.
The addition of the 4B Section for non-competitive ensembles has proved to be a wonderful introductory 'taster', with three bands from Esk Valley Brass (Alan Fernie), Brass Central Strathearn (Tom Smith) and Clackmannan District Youth (Luci Lamb) taking the opportunity to delight the audience on Sunday morning with their 15 minute programmes.
In addition it was great to see a spotlight given to young soloists to perform. It's been a pioneering initiative that other championship events should surely copy.
Hopefully the ensembles will now look to join the competitive action (adjudicator Gareth Bowman will work with them over the coming year) — especially if they are given the opportunity to perform on a piece that was such a delight as 'Neverland' by Christopher Bond.
It has already proven to be a huge hit, with adjudicators Anne Crookston and Jappie Dijkstra joining the growing chorus of musical Peter Pan fans. "It's a great test for them," Anne said before they went into the box.
A few hours later they were even more delighted at what they heard — especially from the soloists. Both judges gave admirably positive remarks, heaping praise as well as highlighting areas that needed to be worked on such as the developing of sound as well as style in what Jappie called the 'Celtic dance' of the third movement.
"Quite a few bands came though very well," he said. "The future of Scotland is safe. You did a fantastic job."
The band that was the most fantastic though was the youthful Newland Concert Brass conducted by Simon Railton, who claimed the first Scottish Championship title in their 33 year history to return to Cheltenham for a second successive year.
They not only managed to get all the basics elements of a solid contest performance in place, but were also able to add that extra sparkle of Tinkerbell title winning dust — aided by the super solo cornet player Karen Heenan.
It gave them a two-point margin of victory over runner-up Kilmarnock Concert led by Scott Walker, who also provided plenty of character to their rendition to book a first final's appearance since 2010.
There was plenty of good playing on show with the remaining bands, with Peebles Burgh just missing out in third with the remaining top-six places going to Stranraer Brass, Dundee Instrumental and Callander Brass.
For the Scottish Brass Band Association, led by their indefatigable President Carrie Boax, the 125th anniversary weekend was an overwhelming success.
The warm welcome offered to competitors as well as visitors was extended this year with features on SBBA's YouTube channel, whilst the feeling of inclusivity extended not just with the youth initiatives but with deserved 'Long Service' awards to a number of individuals.
And with further events planned throughout the year, and a number of strong contenders being sent to represent the nation at London and Cheltenham, the start of the next 125 years is being approached with both confidence and optimism.
Russell Gray's lucid interpretation elicited playing of the highest quality from his prize-winning team, as they took home awards for 'best' cornet, horn, baritone, euphonium, bass, tuba and percussion sections4BR
Test Piece: A Tale as Yet Untold (Philip Sparke)
Adjudicators: Dave Barringer & Sandy Smith
1. the cooperation band (Russell Gray): 93 ***
2. Bon Accord Silver (Adam Cooke): 91**
3. Kirkintilloch Kelvin Brass (Thomas Wyss): 90
4. Whitburn (Joseph Cook): 89*
5. Unison Kinneil (Raymond Tennant): 88
6. Kirkintilloch (Chris King): 87
7. Dalmellington Band (Erik Janssen): 86
8. Newtongrange Silver (Andrew Duncan): 84
9. Dunaskin Doon (Paul Drury): 81
10. Bo'ness & Carriden (Glyn Williams):80
*Pre-qualified for National Final
** Qualify for National Final
***Qualify to represent Scotland at European Championships in Malmo in 2021
Best Soprano Cornet: Scott Forrest (Whitburn)
Best Cornet: Jim Hayes (the cooperation band)
Best Horn/Flugel: Chris Hamilton (the cooperation band)
Best Baritone: Carole Ednie (the cooperation band)
Best Euphonium: Chris Flynn (the cooperation band)
Best Trombone: Mark Boyd (Bon Accord Silver)
Best Bass Section: the cooperation band
Best Bass: Lauren McCormick (the cooperation band)
Best Percussion Section: Bon Accord Silver
Test Piece: Legacy (Tom Davoren)
Adjudicators: Anne Crookston & Jappie Dijkstra
1. Kingdom Brass (Ian Porthouse): 94*
2. Bathgate (Craig Anderson): 92*
3. Johnstone Band (Mark Good): 90
4. Newmilns & Galston Band (Mark James): 89
5. Dalkeith & Monktonhall (James Chamberlain): 88
6. Granite City Brass (Bruce Wallace): 87
7. Coalburn Silver (Gareth Bowman): 86
8. Campbeltown Brass (Stephanie Mitchell): 85
9. Newmains & District (Michael Marzella): 84
10. Tullis Russell (Ray Munday): 82
Best Instrumentalist: David Prentice (cornet) Kingdom Brass
Best Horn: Claire Kimm (Newmilns & Galston)
*Qualify for National Final
Test Piece: The Golden Sabre — Tales of the Hussar-Poet, Denis Davydov (Kit Turnbull)
Adjudicators: Anne Crookston & Jappie Dijkstra
1. Annan Town (Andrew Warriner): 93*
2. St. Ronan's Silver (Gordon Jenkins): 92*
3. Lochgelly Band (Paul McKelvie OBE): 90
4. Irvine & Dreghorn (Lewis Bettles): 87
5. Jedforest Instrumental (Philip Rosier): 86
6. Clackmannan & District (Ross Brotherston): 85
7. St. David's Brass (John A Dickson): 84
8. Broxburn & Livingston (Charlie Farren): 82
9. Selkirk Silver (Colin Kemp): 81
10. Perthshire Brass (George D Annan): 80
Best Instrumentalist: Mike Swale (trombone) Annan Town
Test Piece: Endurance — narrative variations for brass band (Andrew Baker)
Adjudicators: Dave Barringer & Sandy Smith
1. Croy Silver (Kenneth Blackwood): 92*
2. Langholm Town (Chris Shanks): 90*
3. Renfrew Burgh (Mark James): 87
4. Dysart Colliery Band (Kenneth Letham): 86
5. Whitburn Heartlands (Ian Fleming): 85
6. Shotts St Patrick's (Andy Shaw): 84
7. Barrhead Burgh (Graham Dow): 83
8. Penicuik Silver (Robert W Fraser): 82
9. Highland Brass (Mark Bell): 81
10. Buckhaven & Methil Band (Chris Mansfield): 80
Best Instrumentalist: Sarah Devlin (flugel) — Croy Silver
*Qualify for National Final
Test Piece: Neverland (Christopher Bond)
Adjudicators: Anne Crookston & Jappie Dijkstra
1. Newland Concert Brass (Simon Railton): 90*
2. Kilmarnock Concert Brass (Scott Walker): 88*
3. Peebles Burgh (Peter Holmes): 87
4. Stranraer Brass (Angela Miller): 85
5. Dundee Instrumental (Robert McDonald): 83
6. Callander Brass (Ian Milligan): 82
7. Brass Sounds Inverclyde (Wendy McCorkell): 81
8. Hawick Saxhorn (Stuart Black): 80
9. MacTaggart Scott (George Cameron): 79
10. Bon Accord Silver 'B' (Jennifer Cook): 78
11. Coalburn Intermediate (David Fehilly): 77
12. Forfar Instrumental (Donald Innes): 76
13. Dunfermline Town (Andy Shaw): 75
14. Queensferry Community Brass (James Anderson): 74
Best Instrumentalist: Karen Heenan (cornet) — Newland Concert Brass
Youngest BBb Tuba Player: Adam Riddiough (aged 13)
*Qualify for National Final